Ari Zakarian, well-known producer: “Today, only Ilia Malinin is able to raise the marketing of figure skating in the United States.”
Well-known in the figure skating producer and agent Ari Zakarian, in an interview with Match TV, told why the Olympic champion has only two days to monetize his popularity, who will save the figure in the USA (spoiler: this person is Russian) and why Tatiana Tarasova deserves the International Skating Union (ISU) award Lifetime Achievement Award.
source: matchtv.ru dd. 5th January 2022 by Vlad Zhukov
What do you expect from this Olympics? I know you didn’t go there.
Ari Zakarian: I’m waiting for the triumph of Russian figure skating.
Like everyone else, yes. But I’m talking about a possible breakthrough in popularity, after all, such a large-scale event for a world figure. Do you think it won’t happen?
Ari Zakarian: I would say that there will be no figure skating boom in the world. The boom will definitely be in Russia, the boom will be in Japan. I don’t whether something like this will be in Europe. But it definitely will happen in the USA and Canada.
Will not the victory of Nathan Chen in the individual competitions affect in any way?
Ari Zakarian: Maybe for a while. But it is very unlikely that it would be like in the 90s or in the 2000s in America. In the States and Canada, society is completely out of the habit of such a thing as figure skating. Here, everything is so alien … A conditional person from the state of Kentucky has a very weak idea of what figure skating is. And there are many nuances in this, unfortunately.
At the same time, here in Beijing, I see offices of many American newspapers and television companies in the press center. They also go to the figure skating. Doesn’t that help either?
Ari Zakarian: Well, I’m going to tell you like it it. A huge informational upsurge in the States would have been possible if Ilia Malinin had performed at the Olympics.
Let me explain, it’s very simple. First, he has a Russian surname. Secondly, in the next four years he will be the most demanded figure skater – maybe not commercially yet, but as an ultra-c performer. What he is doing now is fantastic, and we all know that.
If they had made such a story, sent him to Beijing for his first Olympics, where there is a lot of journalists, a powerful information field could have been created around him. He is a newcomer, with a Russian surname, the international community has a difficult relationship with Russia. And here – it turns out, there is a native of Russia, who skates for America. This would give a very interesting splash.
And from the both sides – American and Russian.
Ari Zakarian: I think, in general from all sides. In Russia, figure skating does not need to be promoted, it is already so publicized! Our figure skaters are superstars, they are highly in demand, they are recognized on the street. It’s good for figure skaters to live in Russia.
But if Malinin had gone to the Olympics – and with his content, I would not be surprised if he would have finished in the top three, and in any place, even in the first – this would have given a new star. Over time, a financial field would be created around it. Plus, he’s still very young.
So his participation would have given a very strong impetus in terms of PR. And in the next four years, this guy would have brought new fans, and money, and influence. And the guys who are performing now – everyone already knows about them, you can’t tell anything new about them. They will not show anything new. It is clear that Chen is the greatest skater, the other guys are also unique. The same Vincent Zhou is an interesting jumper, a gifted athlete. Jason Brown is one of the best gliders of all time.
But if Malinin had existed on this list, who became second at the US Nationals and had to go to Beijing on a sporting basis, the result would have been different. Interesting for marketing. Why did Oksana Baiul’s story work so well in the States? Because she came to the country for the first time, out of nowhere. Nobody knew her. And when unknown people come and achieve a triumph, it gives a very strong splash in the eyes of society.
It turns out that the American public no longer perceives common moves and they need to be shocked, electrized, figuratively speaking?
Ari Zakarian: Yes. If we evaluate the popularity of figure skating in the States now in comparison with what it was in the 90s, then today five percent of this popularity remains. And it goes down.
Well, what if the USA wins gold in the team event?
Ari Zakarian: Maybe, only if, taking into consideration the international situation between Russia and the United States, it will be possible to somehow attract it. But it won’t be the same as before. Today, figure skating in the United States is not developed at all.
So, even the poster “Russia vs USA” does not create a global interest for them? We announce the team event only this way – and it works very well.
Ari Zakarian: A small interest, of course, is created due to this. But now I’m watching American TV – well, yes, they show the Olympic facilities, they say something. But on a large scale, loke Russian TV, media, Telegram channels, definitely not.
There is (TV channel) NBC here, they gave him coverage of the figure skating. There is FOX, who was given American football – they are preparing for it. They have the Super Bowl now. And when a team event starts in Beijing, the people in the USA will watch Super Bowl. And trust me, the Super Bowl will be watched by 90% of the population. They will celebrate, discuss, and they don’t give a damn about this whole Olympics figure skating. Even if they win the team event, Americans will be watching the Super Bowl at this moment.
And here I again return to Malinin. Today, only he is able to raise the marketing of figure skating in the United States. He’s not just a skater – he’s a guy who surprises. And if he had showed his technical potential at the Olympics, the whole world would have been watching.
Probably, the story of Malinin in this regard is similar to the one that Sasha Trusova had. The same element of the show.
Ari Zakarian: Yes, they do have something similar.
Okay, then let’s talk about the chances of Russia and the United States to win a team event. (interview was given before the team event)
Ari Zakarian: I think Russia is the first, America is the second, Japan is the third. I give 75% for the victory of Russia with any team composition. Let’s take pairs for example. All three Russian pairs are so strong – take one away, the second one will pull it out. It is very difficult to fight them.
Is the same situation with women?
Ari Zakarian: I assume a little competition for Russian women from Wakaba Higuchi. But just nominal competition, because our girls have to make some unrealistic failures in order to give at least one place. I definitely see the Russian top-three in the individual competitions.
Foreigners, of course, have interesting skaters – Kaori Sakamoto, Wakaba, young athletes appear in Japan with a triple axel. They still have something to oppose.
Yes, and the conditional Karen Chen is able to compete in the short program.
Ari Zakarian: No. I don’t see any options for this. The only fight in women’s singles will be only with women from Japan.
But will Kamila Valieva have the first place?
Ari Zakarian: You know, the Olympics are special competition. If we remember 1994, when Kurt Browning, Brian Boitano, and Viktor Petrenko went there. They were all favorites, and Alex Urmanov quite unexpectedly won that Olympics.
If you look at the pre-Olympic expectations, yes, Valieva is the clear favorite. But how it will be at the start – we’ll see. In my opinion, all three Russian girls can win the Olympics. They have basically the same chances.
You say that Malinin is able to raise interest for figure skating in the States. But a foreign athlete – say, our figure skater – is not capable of doing this? For example, Valieva becomes an Olympic champion – can she become such a commercial flagship abroad and drag figure skating there?
Ari Zakarian: I will answer this way: at one time, one very smart American promoter told me this thing: “When the Olympic Games end and you win gold, you have exactly two days to promote yourself. And your whole future life depends on how correctly you do everything in these two days.
Why exactly two?
Ari Zakarian: Because these two days are the highest-grossing, and in any discipline. For example, let’s take the story of Anton Sikharulidze and Lena Berezhnaya – these are the things that happened in 2002, they changed their lives so much that the resonance is still felt. At the same time, other skaters competed in other disciplines, for women – Sarah Hughes, for example. So much time has passed, and we hardly hear anything about her.
And in the context of the future Olympic champion from Russia and her possible commercialization abroad, depending on which country we are talking about. In Russia, they will be heroes for a long time. Let’s go through specific countries to get a better understanding.
Ari Zakarian: Of course, our girls will be recognizable there. They will be shown and written about. Perhaps one of them will be on the cover of USA Today or the New York Times. But what to do next with it? If you no longer appear in America, do no do shows, do not give press conferences, then the hype will go away very quickly. Well, they will talk, and in a month they will forget. Then the football World Cup and other tournaments will begin.
It’s impossible at a distance. And to come – firstly, now it is difficult. And secondly, where will the newly-made Olympic champion perform? The only option is for her to skate in the Stars On Ice show, which will be after the Olympics, in April. But, of course, the Russians will not go there, because in parallel Russia will host its own tour of champions.
Therefore, Russian women are unlikely to achieve sustainable popularity in the West. If this is not brought into such an informational range as I described, all this will go away.
So, what about Japan?
Ari Zakarian: All the same. I’ll give you such an example: in our time there were bands Boney M, Jean-Michel Jarre, Dschinghis Khan. We still remember them because they came to the USSR and performed. Although at the same time the most brilliant American and European rock bands were thundering in the world, which we practically did not know. They began to be recognized only when the iron curtain was opened.
Therefore, you must appear, of course. Let yourself known. And it is also very important: when everybody say that any PR is PR, I do not agree with this. Bad PR is still bad PR. It gives nothing the athlete but negativity. In sports, you must always be good and take smart, competent steps.
I think that in times of cancellation culture, negative PR is slowly fading away. It’s getting harder and harder to achieve anything.
Ari Zakarian: Reputation is always important. Any word, any act for a public person can become fatal. Again, to give an example, a documentary about Janet Jackson has now been released. If you remember, during the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake somehow showed something from her that should not be shown. And from that moment on, her life began to crumble, and her career began to fly into the abyss. Although the video of this incident was watched, there was a very powerful response. But this did her a very bad service – she “flew away.”
You can go to the central square of any city in the world, take off your pants and show your ass. Believe me, there will be a lot of views. So mamy so that a person will immediately become a famous person for 2-3 days. But what’s next?
I have seen so many cases where bad PR has become a big problem for them. Maybe for artists and musicians it works somehow differently, but for athletes it works like this. You have to watch everything very carefully.
Probably, the right example of good PR in the figure skating is Alina Zagitova. She was made a good girl, without any special flaws. Is it necessary?
Ari Zakarian: In my opinion, both Alina and Zhenya Medvedeva are moving in the right direction in terms of marketing. How it will go further and how they will cope, the future will show. But now everything is very smooth with them, there are no strong minuses.
It turns out that both Alina and Zhenya were able to competently monetize their Olympics.
Ari Zakarian: You can always do better, of course. But it seems to me that they realized themselves by 70 percent.
Ari Zakarian: Yulia Lipnitskaya.
What about the story of Steven Spielberg’s letter? I still can’t figure out how it’s possible that one of the world’s greatest directors admires a 15-year-old girl. It seems that there is everything in order to be a megastar. And in the end – a family, a daughter, refusal of publicity …
Ari Zakarian: There was some kind of story with Spielberg. Since I have been working with Evgeni Plushenko and Ira Slutskaya since the mid-late 90s, as their representative, I always had the opportunity to communicate with the top journalists. The first request came to me, and in this way I built connections.
When I was in Sochi at the Olympics, one American journalist somehow casually told me that Steven Spielberg lives nearby to her. I told her: “Tell him to look at the girl at the Olympics – Yulia. She skates to “Schindler’s List”, to the music from his movie. He should like it.”
In the end, he looked, contacted that journalist and said that it was incredible. After that, I already communicated with Spielberg’s representative. Well, then I passed the information to Yulia’s team – and here it is. Then Steven also sent a letter through me addressed to Yulia – such a kind, sincere one.
And that’s it. But here I was just a chain. How they decided in the team is their business. But for sure it was possible to create a very strong, wonderful story from this.
Stronger than it turned out in the end?
Ari Zakarian: Well, it could definitely be much better.
Regarding the Skating Awards. You praise Malinin very much, and you have the Best Newcomer nomination in your award. I suppose Ilia is the main candidate for it?
Ari Zakarian: Definitely. What he does is comparable to the phenomenon that Valieva, Trusova and Anya Shcherbakova gave to the world.
And Valieva? She’s technically a newcomer too. Or is this nomination, shall we say, not for her?
Ari Zakarian: No, for her too. But if, God blesses, she wins, I see her in the Most Valuable Skater nomination.
Will you hold the award online again, as I understand, yes?
Ari Zakarian: Unfortunately yes. I just spoke with a very famous American-Canadian choreographer, and we discussed this moment. The ISU said it would be online again. And I said that if you do this show on the Internet for the third year in a row, then it will kill it’s whole idea. Sitting on Zoom, looking at some faces, keeping track of who turned on and who didn’t turn on is the worst possible marketing.
Of course, I’m glad that the award has not been “killed” yet. But at the same time yesterday I watched American football – the stadium was packed. Hockey – tickets for the NHL All-Star Game are no longer available. Basketball is all packed. In Europe, PSG play in a 100,000-seat stadium and everything is packed. So why can’t the Skating Awards be held in France?
And in the ISU they say: “No, you have to be careful.” I’m so tired of it already, indignation knows no bounds. It was originally invented to raise the marketing. We now have polls in all Telegram channels at the end of the season “Who has the best costume”, “Who has the best program”. Before the award appeared, this was not on a large scale, after all. This creates a biofield, this is marketing.
Imagine, Yuzuru Hanyu got the “Most Valuable Skater”. This is the greatest skater of the great! I would like to make an event out of this – for everyone to discuss how he will go to the podium, what he will wear, how he will stand in front of the audience. What words will he say? Who at this time will be shown in the hall, how he will leave. This is all very important.
The same goes for the “Best Coach” award. They are all preparing for this. When we were going to do our first show at the World Championships in Montreal, some people made dresses specifically for the show. By the way, initially the nomination “Best costume” should have been received not by figure skaters, but by designers. We had disagree, what to say. As for online, all that remains is to throw up your hands and say: “Well, what else can I do?”
I hope that in Russia they will make their own Skating Award Show, their own award. That’s all. And it will be done correctly and competently. And they will show the world community how to organize such things.
What about the Lifetime Achievement Award? Whom are we expecting this time?
Ari Zakarian: I think that Tatyana Anatolievna Tarasova should definitely get it. Because this is a unique person. There are people like Irina Viner, like Alla Pugacheva. And their appearance at concert venues, at sports arenas causes incredible excitement. Tatiana Anatoloevna is the same person. She is brilliant. And she is so devoted to the sport, to which she gave her whole life since childhood, that it is worthy of great respect.